Yes, I know that markets are irrational.
I read Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” long before it ever became fashionable.
Even so, when you think about it, 2011 must set some kind of record.
As investors, that means we need to decide whether this madness will continue in 2012 and which direction to take.
Take the madness in the bond world, for instance.
Long-term bonds of a country with an out-of-control budget deficit and a worrying trade deficit are currently yielding 1.6% below inflation.
In other words, year after year, investors are willing to pay 1.6% of their capital to hold them. On top of that, investors have been so keen on this miserable asset in 2011 they have bid up its price by no less than 26%.
Conversely, China is revolutionising the world economy.
Year after year, China puts up growth rates of 8% or more, and the latest data suggest that will continue throughout 2012.
What’s more, Chinese stocks stand on a bargain-basement price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of less than 8-times earnings. Yet, in 2011, investors shunned these bargains, giving the Chinese market a pathetic return of minus-22%.
Do you see what I mean when I talk about irrational?
To a Martian, these statistics would be proof that earthly markets had lost their collective minds. That’s not just a random walk – it’s a deliberate stroll that will destroy your wealth.
For investors, it raises the question of how long this irrationality is going to last. Will this extreme irrationality persist in 2012, or will it reverse?
The first conclusion to be drawn is that current markets are unhealthy, and largely the product of government meddling.
Western governments have been pumping money into the global economy since 2008, and running budget deficits larger than ever before in peacetime. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been engaging in massive “stimulus” itself, but financing it through the banking system.
When you look at current markets as massively distorted, the right conclusion becomes clear: [US] Treasury bonds are a bubble, inflated by massive money printing worldwide and the troubles in Europe.
And while they may have done well in 2011, they are likely to reverse sharply sometime in 2012. Therefore, Treasury bonds should be avoided at all costs.
As for the Chinese economy, it is facing severe headwinds due to massive problems in the banking system that will make some kind of crash and recession inevitable.
There’s always gold.
It may have fallen out of favor recently, as T-bond prices have soared even higher, but it looks a much better safe haven to me.
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has said he’s not increasing interest rates until the middle of 2013, the Bank of England has announced a huge new bond buying program, the European Central Bank (ECB) is certainly not going to tighten any time soon and Japan also looks unlikely to do so.
All that money has to go somewhere, and gold looks the obvious beneficiary.
Martin Hutchinson is a Contributing Editor to Money Morning (USA).
Publisher’s Note: This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Money Morning (USA)
From the Archives…
A Story of Sell-Offs & Super Spikes by a Stock Market Trader
2012-01-07 – Murray Dawes
Why BHP Will Be the First Victim of China’s Economic Collapse
2012-01-06 – Kris Sayce
The Sun Starts to Set on China’s Economy
2012-01-05 – Kris Sayce
New Year’s Eve 2029: Will the Australian Stock Market Lose a Decade of Growth?
2012-01-03 – Kris Sayce
How to Buy Gold and Silver
2011-12-11 – Dr Alex Cowie
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